Professor Ghulam Azam

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My Journey Through Life Part 9

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(Abridged Translated version of the author’s original Bangla Memoir Jibone Ja Dekhlam)

Translated and Edited by Dr Salman Al-Azami 

Copyright – The Ghulam Azam Foundation

Chapter Nine

Growing Up as a Muslim

I was 19 when I completed my high madrasah education in 1942. I learned how to read the Qur’an before my primary education and continued to read the Qur’an in this way for 13 years. I learned Bangla, English and Arabic in whatever way I could in those years and learned about Islamic jurisprudence and customs through books and translations of the Qur’an and hadith[1]. I also learned about moral values from some books in Bangla and English. However, there was no book on Islam that would provoke my thoughts, so whatever I learned and practiced about Islam was outside my educational experience.

My grandfather helped me develop the practice of regular prayers and daily recitation of the Holy Qur’an. He also taught me some essential Islamic food etiquettes, such as starting to eat by saying Bismillah[2], ending the meal with Alhamdulillah[3], not wasting food etc. While staying in student halls I could guess fellow students’ family backgrounds by their food etiquettes. Some had very annoying habits which made me feel the importance of learning these etiquettes during childhood, as it is difficult to teach such things when people grow older.


Attraction for Waz[4]

I don’t know why, but I loved to listen to waz from childhood and used to organise children of my age to walk a few miles to attend waz programmes. The speakers at that time would quote poets like Sheikh Saadi and Mawlana Rumi more than quoting from the Qur’an and hadith. They would recite works of those Persian poets in such beautiful melodies that we enjoyed them even without understanding what they meant. Their explanations of those poems and the lessons behind them were very catchy and I used to feel how they influenced me in my life. The teachings of those wonderful stories, such as the importance of truthfulness, the dangers of telling lies, the negative effects of causing harm to others; the humiliating consequences of breaking promises and so on would be explained so eloquently that I realised how some of these vices could lead to troubles in this life.

Almost all speakers used to narrate the story of Adam (PBUH[5]) and Iblis (Satan). Instead of finding them inspiring, some fundamental questions arose in my mind that no one could answer satisfactorily. These questions made me feel very uncomfortable, but I couldn’t find their real answers until I read works of Mawlana Mawdudi[6]. Some of these questions include:

  1. Allah secretly taught Adam (PBUH) answers to some questions that the angels failed to answer. Does this mean Allah was not impartial?
  2. Many people narrate the story that if Adam and his wife Hawa (peace be on them) did not eat the forbidden fruit then they would have stayed in heaven forever. If that is true, then what about Allah’s declaration that He created human beings as his representatives on this earth?
  3. If Adam (PBUH) was sent to this earth as a punishment then how did he acquire the status of prophet?

I found brilliant answers to all these questions that used to bother me in Tafhim-ul-Qur’an[7] and thought of writing on this issue separately. While I was in jail in 1992-93 I wrote a book named Adam Srishtir Hakikot (The Significance of Adam’s Creation) where I analysed the seven places in the Qur’an where the story of Adam (PBUH) and Iblis are narrated. I tried to prove that the real significance of this story is very different from that which is commonly narrated in waz programmes.


Interest in Islamic Literature

As already mentioned, there were no textbooks that succeeded in enlightening me with the knowledge of Islam as a way of life, and the books I used to borrow from my madrasahs’ libraries were of no use either. When I was in Class 8 in Comilla a student two classes senior to me called Abdul Qayyum used to live as a tutored lodger in a house on the way from my madrasah. He used to call me and my friends to his room and give us some snacks to eat and read to us from a monthly magazine. I started to like the content of the magazine after a few visits and came to know that it was a Dhaka-based monthly magazine called ‘Neyamot’. It used to contain translations of waz by Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanvi[8] (may Allah be pleased with him) translated by Mawlana Shamsul Haque Faridpuri[9]. Abdul Qayyum never let us borrow his books; he preferred to read them aloud to us. Most students stopped calling on his residence after a few days, but I found my visits very fascinating and continued to visit him.

I was very impressed by the waz of Mawlana Thanvi. He used to recite a particular portion of the Qur’an followed by its translation and explanation in a very logical style giving us a clear idea about the main aspects of those verses. The monthly Neyamot would consist of one topic from his waz every month. I was so overwhelmed by this that I would eagerly wait for each new edition and until it arrived Abdul Qayyum would read to me from other books by Mawlana Thanvi. I can never forget the contribution of Abdul Qayyum in creating my interest in Islamic literature, through which I was exposed to the writings of both Mawlana Thanvi and Mawlana Fardipuri. When I started Class 9 in Dhaka I went to the monthly Neyamot office and became a subscriber. I developed a good rapport with its editor, Mawlana Abdus Salam, who was from my own district of Brahmanbaria. It was he who introduced me to the great personality of Mawlana Shamsul Haque Faridpuri.

Until then I understood Islam as a religion from my parents and grandparents and obeyed their orders in practising it. Although Mawlana Thanvi’s books gave me the confidence that Islam was a logical religion, I was still not aware that it was a complete way of life. However, Mawlana Thanvi’s greatest contribution to me was that he created my thirst for learning Islam.


Strict Practice of Islam at Home

My father was uncompromising about the practice of Islam in our daily lives. The following are some examples:

  1. Praying in congregation: When I was in Chandina the mosque was a little far from our house. He used to pray five times at the mosque and encouraged us to do the same. He would become angry if we sometimes failed to go to the mosque. When we moved to Dhaka in 1953 he used to pray regularly at the mosque next to the Ramna Police Station. The distance to the mosque in Dhaka was similar to that of Chandina. When my eldest son was in Class 6 he arranged prayers in congregation at home. The first reason was that he found it difficult to walk to every prayer due to his arthritis, and secondly he wanted his grandson to grow the habit of praying in congregation. He subsequently decided that he would build a mosque on his property in Moghbazar. He realised that it would be difficult to take all his grandchildren to the mosque near Ramna Police Station, so it was necessary to have a mosque at home. The first floor of the present three-storeyed Moghbazar Kazi Office Lane Mosque was built entirely from his own expenses without any external help. The mosque began operating from the first day of Ramadan in 1971.
  2. Keeping a beard: My youngest uncle, Mr Shafiqul Islam, was three years older than me. When I was in Class 8 in Comilla in 1939 he was studying in Dhaka Government Intermediate College. My father noticed when he came to Chandina that my uncle had started shaving his beard. My father told him, “It is Sunnah[10] to keep a beard and Allah has made this for men only. If you don’t keep a beard then it means that you prefer to be like a woman. I want you to keep a beard and if you don’t then I will have to stop paying for your education.” When my uncle came home the following summer with a bearded face my father became extremely happy, hugged my uncle and said to him with tears in his eyes, “If you follow the path of Allah and His Prophet then you will succeed in both the worlds.” My mother also joined the celebration and held a mirror in front of my uncle saying, “See, how handsome you look!”

This incident of my uncle made such a big impact in our family that all those who were dependent on our father – we four brothers and the first two sons of our eldest uncle – kept a beard from the beginning. I first grew a beard in 1942 when I started Islamic Intermediate College. Initially I had some scattered facial hair, so some of my friends suggested that to make my beard look good I should shave it for a while. I remember that one of my roommates shaved my beard a few times, which made my conscience hurt. I didn’t let him continue this as I was supposed to go back home in a couple of months. When I returned to the hostel after the summer holidays my beard was big enough to be noticed. Although some of my friends were not happy to see me with a beard, a number of them felt encouraged to keep a beard themselves. One of them said, “We decided to keep a beard looking at you. We had also thought that we needed to shave for a while to make the beard look good, but your beautiful beard changed our minds.”

I found very few students with a beard in university. Even students of Arabic and Islamic Studies hardly had a beard except those who came from madrasahs. The only prominent academic with a beard was Dr Muhammad Shahidullah. After retirement Dr Shahidullah used to run a Qur’an class in the prayer room of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall, which I used to attend regularly. He was a short man, but his beard was quite big compared to his physique. One day, he held his beard in his fingers and asked, “How much does my beard weigh?” When students found this question quite surprising he said, “Then why do most of you shave your beard? Do you think it is too heavy?” He also said that people look at bearded people with respect. This I found to be very true throughout my life. During my terms at the Dhaka University Student Union I used to notice that students would behave more gently when I was around. Even the only female member of the union would cover her head when I used to come to the union office.

  1. Wearing clothing above the ankles: My father would never hesitate to suggest to people not to wear clothes below the ankles. As there are strong words against it in the hadith, he was justified to put emphasis on this. None of my classmates were concerned about this, so my clothes also used to be below the ankle. I would only raise clothes above the ankle before prayer and roll them back after finishing the prayer. However, we never dared to wear clothes that crossed the ankle in front of my father. We would pull our pyjama bottoms up to ensure that they were above the ankle before we met him and go back to the previous position afterwards. This behaviour was completely unacceptable. After reading the book Witness unto Mankind by Mawlana Maududi I realised that this type of behaviour is normal if one is not fully aware of what Iman (faith) means and does not develop the true spirits of Islam. I stopped wearing clothes below the ankle as soon as I became truly conscious about Iman and Islam.
  2. Wearing shirts and trousers: No one in our family was used to wearing shirts and trousers. My uncle Shafiqul Islam was a student leader during the Pakistan movement and used to stay in the famous Bekar Hostel of Kolkata while studying at Kolkata Presidency College. Yet he would always wear pyjama bottoms[11] and shirts and never wore shirts or trousers. When my younger brother started hospital duty in the third year of his medical college studies in Kolkata Medical College, he wrote a letter to my father seeking permission to wear trousers. He didn’t dare to wear trousers himself without my father’s permission due to my father’s uncompromising attitudes towards religious practice. My brother thought it was necessary to avoid his long shirt touching the patients and as it would look very odd to tuck his shirt inside his pyjama bottoms, he thought it would be better to wear trousers. My father replied, “If you can’t study medicine without wearing trousers, then it is better to leave this subject.” With the grace of the Almighty this brother of mine passed with a gold medal award wearing pyjama bottoms and shirts throughout his student life.

I too spent my university life, including my roles at hall and university unions, wearing pyjama bottoms and shirts although most of my fellow students used to wear shirts and trousers. When I started my teaching career at Rangpur Carmichael College in December 1950 I found it very difficult to keep myself warm with pyjama bottoms and shirts, so I had to wear warm trousers and a sherwani[12]. I ensured that my tailor stitched the trousers above the ankle. When I arrived back home for holidays wearing sherwani and trousers I found my brother Dr Ghulam Muazzam and my father sitting on the veranda. I observed that my brother was staring at my trousers and then looking at my father. After doing that for several times my father understood what he was thinking. He said to my brother, “I never considered wearing trousers to be haram[13], but had thought that trousers are always worn below the ankle. I was unaware that it was possible to wear trousers above the ankle. That is why I didn’t give you permission to wear trousers. I have no problem if you wear trousers above the ankle. However, although wearing shirts is permitted in Islam, I don’t like it.” After this my brother also started wearing trousers.

When Dr Ghulam Muazzam went to London for higher studies he took with him warm trousers and a sherwani. One of his classmates told him that he would not be given his degree if he didn’t wear a suit. I heard from my brother that his individuality was rather appreciated and he was always praised as a good student. When Dr Muazzam was working as a pathologist at Dhaka Medical College, the principal once told him, “You should come properly dressed.” Dr Muazzam asked him, “What dress is proper according to you?” The principal, in a rude voice, said, “Don’t you see what other doctors wear?” Muazzam replied in a firm voice, “I have seen sweepers wearing that type of dress in England. It is their national dress, not the uniform of a doctor.” The principal preferred to remain silent after this.

Some people may not like my father’s strict attitude towards religious principles, but the lessons I had from this have been extremely valuable for me. We do everything for our children’s worldly successes and never hesitate to sacrifice for them, but how many parents are serious about their success in the hereafter? I have seen many pious people not even bothering to ensure that their children pray five times a day and not worried if their daughters don’t wear the hijab. They are only happy if they do well in their exams and succeed in this world. They forget that they will have to answer to Allah on the Day of Judgment if their children are derailed due to their negligence. If my father had not been strict then it would have been difficult for his children to lead an Islamic lifestyle being brought up in a secular educational environment. There is little scope of bringing up our children as a Muslim in our general educational system. Those who are able to live as a Muslim have been able to do so only because of their parents’ influence.


[1] Teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) including sayings, actions and tacit approvals.

[2] In the name of Allah

[3] All praise is to Allah

[4] A traditional Islamic gathering with massive attendance in Bangladesh with an Islamic scholar speaking about different aspects of Islam and narrating stories about the prophet and his companions.

[5] Peace be upon him

[6] A renowned Islamic thinker and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami

[7] ‘’Towards Understanding the Qur’an” translation and explanation of the Qur’an by Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi

[8] A prominent late 19th and early 20th century South Asian scholar from the Deobandi school of thought.

[9] A famous 20th century Islamic scholar in East Bengal

[10] Teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

[11] A type of trousers worn in Bangladesh as distinct from the salwar bottoms worn in Pakistan.

[12] A knee-length coat buttoning to the neck, worn by men from South Asia.

[13] Forbidden in Islam

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